“As Leonard Cohen says you must build a fence around the sacred if you want to protect and nurture it in your life. Our New Sabbath Project is a step in that direction.”
- Ralph Benmergui
It's easy to say that religion causes war. Ayn Rand, Karl Marx and Richard Dawkins have all done so. There's plenty of evidence to back that thesis, too - historical horrors ranging from the Crusades to 9/11 all had religious motives. But what of the wars that didn't? The Rwandan genocide was tribal. World Wars I and II were about power and conquest. Conquistadors might have told themselves their goal was to bring God to the heathens, but they sure squeezed in a lot of rape, pillage and plunder along the way, didn't they?
Beyond this lies the fact that war is not a uniquely human enterprise; other species ranging from ants to lions and hyenas engage in mortal combat, too. In all cases, war is always about the same things – dominance and resource access. While religion makes for a pretty unassailable justification for conflict (mortals can’t argue with the will of God), it’s one not suitable to that application.
The sad irony is that the core teachings of all great religions try to steer people in the opposite direction. The Golden Rule pops up in faiths across the spectrum of time and geography. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that religion played a role in nurturing civilization, lighting the candle of humanity in our dark paleomammalian hearts. Is it possible that religion, in its purest sense, is about bringing people together rather than setting them against each other?
Last Friday, I had the great pleasure of partaking in The New Sabbath Project hosted by two wonderful human beings, Ralph Benmergui and Cortney Pasternak. They invited a diverse group of people with different lineages and differing trajectories into their home for the lighting of candles and the breaking of bread. It was a cold, dark autumn evening, but within those walls was a space filled with warmth and light. Ralph and Cortney billed the dinner as a night of food and prayer; for me, what they created was community.
As an ice-breaker, Ralph had everyone explain the origin of their family name. Through the process, we got to understand each other not just as faces and titles, but as threads of the experiences of generations, woven into the fabric of each individual. By adding dimension to each name, we all became a bit more humanized to each other. This became critical, later on.
After appetizers, we moved to the table, where Ralph explained the rituals of Shabbat. As he unspooled the rules, though, Ralph explained the why – what the bread symbolized, what the salt symbolized, what the candles represented. By the time he began the incantation (given in Hebrew), we had already, through our opening up to each other and under the roof of our hosts, created a shared space.
Judaism is an ancient religion that has preserved the same traditions for thousands of years, from the days before empires. Through the symbolism of the Shabbat ritual, but especially through the concept of shared food and light an image was invoked for me of people at the dawn of civilization huddling together around a campfire, safe from a dark and threatening world.
Then, in another ancient tradition, Ralph kicked off the act of giving blessings – to or for people, in commemoration of places or events, an evocation of empathy for the world beyond our created space. It dawned on me as we went around the room that the act of giving blessings was a way of engendering empathy for others and gratitude for the things we have (instead of fueling resentment over the things we don’t). These are fundamental concepts to Positive Psychology, a newish field that seeks to build social/emotional skills and emotional resiliency in people.
Militaries use Positive Psychology as way of empowering their soldiers, just as a growing number of workplaces are employing its principles to foster healthier and more productive employees. A religious ritual that predated history had already mastered a key concept of psychological well-being millennia before science had even begun to explore how the mind works.
In the discussion that followed one of the guests, Sylvia, talked about a new job working with Native women. Each work day, she explained, began with a “circle” – the creation of a space of comfort in which people could talk about their feelings. For the first few days Sylvia didn’t get the point – they were there to work, not to have a hug-in. By mid-week however, it made sense; when you understood the emotional state of a person at the start of the day, it informed all your interactions going forward. There were less awkward communication problems and more appropriate supports, leading to improved outcomes.
The notion of the shared space and even many of the rituals involved in creating that space mirrored the traditions of Shabbat. It wasn’t just one religious faith that had landed on these practices; they seemed to be attached to religions from around the world. This was appropriate – around the table were lineages representing Europe, Asia, Africa and pre-conquest North America. The experience of the New Sabbath Project knitted together each of these histories into one shared community that transcended any one of our narratives.
At Ralph and Cortney’s table there were laughs and tears; deeply personal stories, tentative aspirations and questions of all kinds were shared. Because of the nature of the space we had created, together, there was no judgment. There was food (including Cortney’s amazing bread), there was light and above all, there was community. Because of this, we all felt open to be ourselves, to speak plainly and honestly, as well as to listen. It was surprising to many of us just what a fresh experience that was.
When the evening was done and the candles extinguished, we all parted and headed back into the darkness alone, yet filled in many ways. The threads of our shared experience, however, weren’t cut – they will continue to accompany each of us on our journeys, encouraging us to seek out and weave even more lineages into our communal tapestry.
As the Rands, Marxes and Dawkinses of the world focus on a clinically pragmatic view of the world, they are neglecting a key component of the human experience – the connective tissue of community that gives us cause to come together and create a whole that’s more than the sum of its parts.
At its root, then, perhaps religion isn’t a thing designed to justify conflict and dominance; maybe it’s the thing that’s meant to bring us together. So long as we keep a candle burning somewhere out there, that hope remains.